When Willie George O’Kane received a card from the Queen wishing him a happy 100th birthday, the Foreglen man says he was a bit disappointed.
Understandable, really, as the centenarian had also received a letter from the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, with a cheque attached for a tidy sum.
“When I opened the card from the Queen, damn all fell out of it!” joked Willie George.
Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth’s card is proudly on show among the more than 100 cards Willie George received to mark a milestone he celebrated with family. He also received a special Irish Blessing from the GAA and a piece of engraved glassware from the bowling team in Dungiven he played for, Castle Green.
Alongside a special cake, Willie George enjoyed his favourite daily tipples of Guinness and whiskey.
“I had a great party,” says Willie George, who made a speech in front of his guests.
When I opened the card from the Queen, damn all fell out of it!Centenarian, Willie George O’Kane
Willie George, always smartly dressed in a suit with braces, co-ordinated shirt, tie, socks, shoes, and navy tweed flat cap, has a sharp memory.
He’s able to recall events from during the war, digging trenches in London, when bikes were a luxury to stories from yesteryear, including the night he interrupted the black market sale of sugar. He says it was the talk of the place for some time and, having kept the sugar, he was a wanted man.
Born on October 6, 1916, in the townland of Oville in Foreglen, off the main Derry to Dungiven road, Willie George’s parents were William O’Kane and Annie (nee Mullan).
Willie George had 11 siblings, and has one sister, Maureen, still alive. He left school close to his teenage years, and moved to London for a time.
It was back home, however, where Willie George, handsome and standing at 6ft 3’, met the love of his life, the beautiful Gladys McCandless from Derry.
Gladys’ brother and Willie George were friendly. The two men raced greyhounds at Celtic Park, and Gladys and Willie George would eventually meet.
The couple enjoyed more than 60 married years together before Gladys passed away. They raised eight children - Marie, twins Raymond and Betty, Irene, Gladys, Thelma, Janice and Desmond, who has sadly passed away. They have 23 grandchildren and 42 great grandchildren.
Willie George loves having his family around him, and they mean the world to him. He says life is mostly better now. Although, he believes the generation coming up have it harder in ways he never did, for example, finding work. Willie George misses his wife, Gladys, terribly and their son, Desmond, but he says he’s happy and has high praise for his family and the team of carers that look after him.
However, the straight talking Foreglen man says his body is sore. “People look at me and they think I look grand,” says Willie George, “but my bones are sore. The soreness is always there.”
Times were hard growing up, raising a big family, but Willie George wasn’t afraid to turn his hand to anything. He farmed, served as a fireman in Derry, trained as a scaffolder, worked as a site investigator on the US communications base on Benbradagh and, until retirement, worked in the German factory, Hoechst, in Aghanloo, outside Limavady.
He’s lived through the Partition of Ireland, the changes in currency, survived the war, marvelled at the arrival of cars on the roads, and watched the never ending changes in technology. Up until a couple of years ago, Willie George was driving and tending to his garden. His eyesight is sharp, like his mind.
He keeps up with the news, and doesn’t think much of US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump. “He’s a terrible man,” quips Willie George, who still loves his football.
Up until Alex Ferguson left he wouldn’t have missed a Manchester United match on television (he was in the stands at Old Trafford when he was 90), and he counts Republic of Ireland manager Roy Keane as one of his heroes.
The 100-year-old says he was always doing something in his spare time, playing bowls or tug-o-war.He’s proud of his GAA days, and playing goals for O’Brien’s GAC.
With glee, he recalls when Foreglen beat Dungiven at Miller’s Field in Foreglen when the scoreline was off the board (he reckons Foreglen won 30 points to nothing, or thereabouts) and Willie George had been given a chair.
“I sat on that chair for most of the match,” he says, wistfully.
When asked how he’s reached 100 years old, Willie George pauses, before he smiles and says: “Plenty of hard work, whiskey and Guinness.”